Southeast Asia’s Healthcare Workforce: More Doctors and Nurses Needed

Compared to many other parts of the world, Southeast Asia has a relatively low density of skilled healthcare professionals, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO). In 2010, the last year for which there is consistent global data, Southeast Asia had fewer doctors, nurses and midwives per capita than any region other than South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As the region’s economy grows, however, the situation has big potential to improve.

(2) Global Skilled Workforce

The good news is that Southeast Asia has a sufficiently large healthcare workforce to meet the WHO’s minimum standards for “basic” healthcare availability. Countries that fall below the benchmark of 22.8 skilled health workers per 10,000 people are considered to be in a state of “crisis” if they also have low maternal service coverage. Although a few Southeast Asian countries belong in the crisis category, most have enough skilled health workers to meet the basic needs of most their people.

Although Southeast Asia has a decent overall density of skilled health workers, major variations exist throughout the region. As shown in the chart below, Vietnam, Myanmar, Lao PDR and Cambodia failed to meet the WHO’s “basic” healthcare standard, while Indonesia and Thailand barely made the cut. Malaysia offers comparatively high levels of care, while Singapore offers world-class health coverage and services. 

(1) SEAsia skilled health workforce

All this being said, the WHO data in the charts above has several limitations and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. For starters, they reflect only absolute numbers of healthcare professionals at a national level, but say nothing about the quality, affordability and accessibility of the healthcare services available. Not all doctors and nurses in the region have adequate training or up-to-date skills honed through continuing education. 

The data also fails to account for the major differences in healthcare access that exist within individual countries. Vietnam, for example, has an expansive grassroots health system, with a broad network of clinics spread out in rural areas throughout the country. Yet as reported in an article on Health Intel Asia, skilled physicians typically move to the big cities for better opportunities, leaving rural areas understaffed with comparatively low-skilled health workers. 

For these reasons and more, a 2013 report about global healthcare talent shortages by the World Health Organization cautions that the healthcare workforce “cannot be considered in isolation from the infrastructure, equipment, medicines, consumables and financial resources that create an enabling or positive practice environment that interacts with communities and individuals.” 

The data in the charts above comes from 2010, so it’s also possible that the numbers have improved since then. Across Southeast Asia, rising healthcare spending is driving increasing demand for healthcare services of progressively higher quality. This will certainly provide strong incentives for more people to enter the healthcare workforce. Whether workforce growth keeps pace with population growth remains to be seen.